A new year brings a new RMS report and trend predictions for 2022. Nearly two years into pandemic life, one might wonder, “Have we reached the end of the ‘new normal?” because as the latest findings indicate, the more things stay weird, the less they seem to change – at least for the restaurant industry.
To help operators get a better understanding of the current dynamic environment, RMS’ industry trends report delves into sales, traffic and average check trends for Quick-Service restaurants (QSR) comparing December 2021 to December 2019. In addition, in November 2021, RMS surveyed more than 800 people throughout the U.S. The respondents ranged in age from the youngest generation (Gen Z) to the oldest (Silent). The majority of diners surveyed (83%) dine out anywhere from at least 2 times per week to 5 or more times per week. We dig into the trends deeper below, but in a nutshell: the holiday boost wasn’t realized, though it wasn’t entirely a bust either, with slight increases in average check, sales and traffic.
Trend 1: Holiday bump – small increase in traffic, average check and sales
It was a modest holiday season for restaurants, with traffic only slightly increasing from -13% to -11% and average check and sales experiencing similarly humble gains (up 1% and 3% respectively). When compared to the same period in 2019, these gains seem substantial (average check +22% and sales + 8%), though traffic trends for the same period were lower this December (-11%). It’s clear that while consumers are going to restaurants at about the same rate, ordering behavior is changing.
But why? When looking at POS data and its recent consumer survey, RMS analysts believe the move back to work, coupled with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the U.S., play big roles affecting average check. During the pandemic, RMS consumer surveys and sales/traffic data indicated that QSR visits were an occasion for the whole family or household. Now, with some in those households returning to the office, QSR occasions are reverting to an individual making a quick stop during a commute or for lunch in the office.
RMS’ recent survey confirms this, with 32% of those working primarily from the office saying they ordered more frequently from quick-service restaurants.
According to RMS insights:
- In December 2021, average check was up 22% compared to the same period in 2019, and sales were up 8%.
When comparing month over month (December 2021 to November 2021):
- Average check was up 1%; sales up by 3%.
- Traffic slightly increased from -13% to -11%.
- Though the industry hoped for a holiday boost, December only offered humble gains.
It’s worth noting that while traffic remains steady, the virus is anything but. With new variants, including the latest Omicron mutation, the industry may find guest behavior forced to shift – or not. “The U.S. saw the first case of Omicron in mid-November. RMS is looking at QSR data starting at that time and will continue to do so until we see a downward turn in cases – which we’re hoping is soon,” says John Oakes, CEO of Revenue Management Solutions. “The pandemic continues to throw the industry curveballs and while Omicron was a surprise, we will use the data and insights we gather to help us prepare for the restaurant industry’s next unexpected pivot.”
Trend 2: Prices in head may appear larger than they are on the menu
Menu prices may also be contributing to the decrease in check. But while prices are higher, at least they are not as high grocery store prices or food at home (FAH). The perception of restaurant inflation has almost doubled since November 2020, with now almost 60% of respondents stating that they paid higher restaurant prices in the past month.
The perception of grocery inflation also continues to increase. Among respondents, the number of those who believe grocery prices increased by more than 10% went up from 40% in Q3 to 50%. This is in line with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest report which shows FAH prices continuing to surpass Food Away From Home (restaurant) prices.
This is a unique opportunity for brands. “It’s not often that restaurants find themselves in the position of being a better bargain than preparing FAH,” said Director of Behavioral Research Dr. Christina Norton. This opens the door for brands to be creative in their marketing messaging and testing new menu offerings like take-home meals kits. “Imagine the delight of kids everywhere, not to mention those adults weary of cooking, to realize that yes, it makes financial sense to go out to eat instead of preparing meals at home,” says Norton.
Which brings us to the next trend, where will diners get those price-friendly, restaurant meals?
Trend 4: Drive-thru still on top
Throughout the pandemic, RMS has analyzed drive-thru traffic and trends, including hosting Revenue Stream webinars featuring industry experts. While we’ve seen most all channels climb and recede, drive-thru still reigns supreme. Case in point: Looking back nearly a year ago to February 2021, RMS reported then that ‘drive-thru share increased from slightly over 60% pre-pandemic to nearly 80% now for QSR players.’ In that same article, Revenue Management Solutions VP of Consulting Services Chris Norton was quoted saying, “The (drive-thru) trend may have been caused by the pandemic, but it’s likely here to stay.” Turns out, he was correct.
Returning to 2021, when compared to previous months, delivery and take-out frequencies are down. Dine-in is up 2% and drive-thru climbed by 3% during November. Drive-thru remains the preferred off-premise option for respondents and dine-in maintained its popularity from Q3.
As the industry and its guests continue to navigate the twists and turns of the pandemic, drive-thru traffic is here to stay. Delivery not so much. Based on respondents to the recent survey, boomers are closing the door on delivery by sizable amounts. On the flip side, younger generations (Gen X, millennial, Gen Z) plan on increasing drive-thru purchases in the future. RMS’ takeaway for the coming months: delivery could see the biggest change in usage, while drive-thru and dine-in could see little to no change from boomers.
Trend 5: Dining habits remain static
At trend 5, we come full circle – the most compelling change being that there is no change. Daily life has found a new set of habits that suggests, if not indicates, that we have seen a seismic and permanent shift in how people interact with restaurants, says Christina. The survey supports this. Among diners questioned, 1 in 2 report that their dining habits simply won’t change going forward.
The minimal change we have seen over the past two months is for full-service, breakfast and local restaurants, and prior to the spread of Omicron in the U.S. “These off-premise options saw the largest growth which aligns with people returning to work in the office,” Christina says. Respondents who order more from full-service and local restaurants work predominantly from the office with a difference of 12% and 16% respectively than of people who work from home.
It remains to be seen if consumers will return to using quick-service to feed the household or whether, post-Omicron, if working lunches will surge. Either way, RMS will continue to observe QSR trends to keep our clients and the restaurant industry informed on what lies ahead. For tips on restaurant pricing and more information on industry topics, subscribe to our monthly newsletter.